Q&A With Alice Sherman Simpson

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Q&A With Alice Sherman Simpson

Heather Drucker connected me to my current author Alice Sherman Simpson with whom I’m doing a Q&A. I recently read an early copy of The Winthrop Agreement, which is a historical fiction book for fans of the genre especially if you enjoy the television show The Gilded Age on HBO. Alice had another book published in 2014 titled Ballroom. Besides being an author, Alice is also an accomplished visual artist!


Q: Alice, would you like to tell those who haven’t read The Winthrop Agreement yet a little bit about the book and how you came up with the idea?



A: Thanks for your question, Bianca.

My inspiration for THE WINTHROP AGREEMENT originated with a 1910 photo of a New York City Lower East Side tenement, in which I observed the young girl and infant in the front parlor window and wondered who she might have been, what she dreamed about, and what became of her? I considered and imagined her dreams as well as her future. As I wrote, her life, the people she met, molded her character and the story developed. My own mother grew up in a building such as this one on Eldridge Street, and she, her sister and four brothers struggled to rise above the poverty of my immigrant grandparents. The Gilded Age was a time of the haves and the have-nots—the very rich and poor. Mimi is part of the generation that strived toward The American Dream.  

Q: Alice, I can tell you put a ton of research into the novel. What was the research process like while writing The Winthrop Agreement?

A: I researched the life, the costumes, even the flowers of the town of Marijampolė in Lithuania, the experiences of immigrants entering Ellis Island in 1893, factory work and life in the sweatshops that existed during that period of industrialization.  I tried to recreate those crowded airless rooms, unbearably hot in summer, numbing cold in winter; to describe the smells, the light, and how one would feel after twelve hours bent over a sewing machine. I searched to find the words to accurately describe how the poor struggled to make enough for rent and food while they lived in overcrowded rooms. There were no laws in place to protect workers at that time.  

I interviewed experts in Yiddish idioms, read vintage newspaper columns that helped abandoned wives search for missing husbands, read about psychics who promised to find those men who abandoned their families.  It was thrilling to speak with Carnegie Hall’s Historian who described all the details of an event the Winthrop family attended on Opening Night.  Fascinated with fashion and burlesque, theater, Grand Central Station and city night life, I searched for music, news and photos.

The mansions, mazes and gardens—the parties and balls of those who lived in “uptown” luxury —were startling. My favorite adventure was a network of New York City librarians who helped me locate a book of astronomy that my protagonist, Miriam Milman, at age eight, found at a children’s lending library in order to teach her handicapped neighbor Szymon to read. His parents would not allow him to go to school.   

These knowledgeable librarians led me from one specialist to another, including the head of the Carnegie Observatory in Pasadena, CA, and ultimately to the Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology at The Huntington Library, where he is responsible for the science and technology holdings from 1800 to the present. He introduced me to Asa Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy designed for the use of the public or common schools in the United States, 1855. It’s an absolutely breathtaking book to see!Description:

 I’m certain that if I had included all the fascinating material I discovered, the book might have been eight-hundred pages!

Q: Did you always know growing up that you wanted to be an author, or did you figure this out after you became a visual artist?

A: All I ever wanted was to be was a fashion illustrator, and I studied fashion illustration and graphic design, opened my own design firm and provided design concepts for all the top cosmetic and fragrance companies. My fashion and beauty illustrations appeared in major fashion magazines. Writing came late in life to me.

Q: Would you explain what a visual artist is? It sounds like a lot of fun! 

A:  Visual artists are creative professionals who works in the areas of painting, photography, sculpture and graphic design are considered visual artists. I began creating products, package designs, displays and gifts for cosmetic companies. I designed collectible rhinestone-encrusted compacts for Estee Lauder Cosmetics. When you buy makeup and the store gives you a gift with purchase that you take away in a pretty little shopping bag, I might have designed that! 

Not long after I began studying ballroom dancing in the 1990s, everything I did creatively was inspired by popular dances: books, sculpture, paintings and stories.  I began making one-of-a-kind painted books about popular dances like Swing, Tango and Hip-Hop, which interested book collectors; private and libraries’ Special Collections. Next, I worked in clay, creating three-dimensional sculptures of dancers. …and then I learned that I could write and tell a story that people wanted to read.

Q: If Hollywood were to get the rights to The Winthrop Agreement (if they haven’t already) who would you cast to play Mimi, Matthew and the other characters?

A: Mimi needs to be portrayed as vulnerable and modest, and then grow into a confident, elegant young woman who can “carry” her own sophisticated fashions.

All three Winthrop brothers are tall, noble and handsome. Frederick, while having these qualities, must have a sinister edge.  

Q: Are you currently writing your next historical fiction novel? If so can you reveal any details about what the topic will be about?

A: I never discuss what I am writing. I prefer to surprise my readers!

Q: How long did it take you to write The Winthrop Agreement?

A: I began The Winthrop Agreement in 2015 after the publication of my debut novel, Ballroom. Told in interconnecting stories, Ballroom is set in 1999 in New York City, about six distinctive ballroom regulars whose lives revolve around the rhythms of a soon-to-be-demolished ballroom. Their paths cross in poignant and startling ways on and off the dance floor. Each believes that something special is waiting. They share one passion—dance. Ballroom is a book that appeals to fans of complex characters. 

Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away after reading The Winthrop Agreement? 

A: The Winthrop Agreement lends itself to fascinating discussions about our families’ histories; the journey our parents and grandparents may have taken, how and for what they strived and how it has affected who we are. It is the story of three women who have been abandoned by their husbands. Their experiences and their struggle to survive may be familiar and need to share.  THE WINTHROP AGREEMENT raises the question of what is it, as women, we want.  How did we or how will we go about making our dreams come true?